The Burden of Babylon
It is well that there are some men who see what may be called the more majestic and overpowering aspects of God. Some of us are afraid almost to utter the great words which properly belong to the deity as descriptive of his nature and attributes and government. Herein what a wonderful difference there is between the Old Testament and the New, between the Hebrew and the Greek! Neither is sufficient alone: some men never look at the sky; they look only at the earth; others are not satisfied with looking at what is under their feet, they must with eager yet reverent eyes search the mystery of the heavens. We need all kinds of revelation in order that we may approximate to an idea concerning God"s nature, so wondrous, yet so simple; so lifted up above all time and space as known to us, and yet walking by our very sides, and tabernacling within us as an invited guest.
This is called "The Burden of Babylon." Whenever we find the word burden in this association it means oracle, a speech of doom; it is never connected with blessing, hope, enlarged opportunity, or expanded liberty; it always means that judgment is swiftly coming, and may at any moment burst upon the thing that is doomed. "Which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see." We have ventured to lay it down that there is a genius of Biblical interpretation, that things are not to be taken always in their literal and most obvious and superficial sense. This doctrine cannot be proved by one single instance; we must search the whole record in order to seize this doctrine as a possession which enables us to open many a door in the great wall, built of gold and jasper, of revelation. "Which Isaiah did see." How did he see it? The word "see" needs to be defined every day. Blind men may see. We do not see with the eyes only, else truly we should see very little; the whole body becomes an eye when it is full of light, and they who are holiest see farthest: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Men see morally, intellectually, sympathetically, as well as visually. How could Isaiah see this burden of Babylon when it did not fall upon the proud city for two centuries? Is there, then, no annihilation of time and space? Are we the mean prisoners we thought ourselves to be? is it Song of Solomon, that we are caged round by invisible iron, and sealed down by some oppressive power, or blinded by some arbitrary or cruel shadow? We might see more if we looked in the right direction; we might be masters of the centuries if we lived with God. Isaiah is never weary of saying that he saw what he affirms. He does not describe it as having been seen by some other man; having written his record he signs it, or having begun to deliver his prophecy he writes it as a man writes his will; he begins by asserting that it is his testament, his own very witness, for he was there, saw it, and he accepts the responsibility of every declaration.
"Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain" ( Isaiah 13:2). Does that mean geographically high? Not necessarily. Here again we have need to commit ourselves to the genius of Biblical interpretation. The high mountain is really a bare mountain, not bearded with a forest, not tufted with a few trees, with which the banner might be confused, but a bare, bald, rock-like height, where nothing is to be seen but the uplifted banner of God. Truly, in Christian warfare we might learn something from military enterprise. Have we put our banner in the right place? It is not enough to have a banner, we must be careful where we plant it; it may be mistaken for a tree, it may get entangled among the branches of great oaks or cedars: it is not enough to have a light, we must put it on the candlestick, and set it on the table, and not cover it with a bushel so that the darkness may be unrelieved by its presence: it is not enough to have intelligence, we must properly display it, use it for the benefit of those who are not so intelligent as we are: it is not enough to have schools, we must set the doors wide open, and compel the ignorant to enter that they may return from the sanctuary of wisdom instructed and mentally fortified: it is not enough to have a church, we must open every door and every window, and bid all the people welcome—the more wicked, the more welcome; the more ignorant, if willing to learn, the more desired with the solicitude of sympathy and interest. "Shake the hand" ( Isaiah 13:2). Is that a common signification? Is it to be read as the words would be read to-day in describing social approaches and intercourses? The word is a military word, and it signifies an emphatic gesture of the hand, so that there may be no mistake as to the place indicated: the index-fingers seems long enough to reach the top of the mountain, and to point out the very locality which the banner is to occupy. In military exploits men are not afraid of emphasis: how much afraid we are of it in the Church! The children of this world are wiser than the children of light. When men are determined upon conquering a position with guns and swords, they go about it as if they meant to conquer. How is the Church going about the conversion of the world to-day? Hardly going about the work at all, mumbling where it should roar, giving vague directions where it should give specific indications. Carlyle has said we are lost in many enterprises for want of emphasis. And there may be emphasis which is not properly distributed. We may be earnest about little things instead of great things: "Thy servant was busy here and there," and the king passed by; not, Thy servant was slothful, slumbering, but was busy "here and there," and it is impossible for any man to be busy both here and there. That is the difficulty of misdirected effort, ill-spent vigour, and vain earnestness, that men do not keep to the line, they are not found constantly at the point: they are preaching in Genesis in the morning and in Timothy in the evening; therefore the Bible is scattered, broken up; its continuity is lost, its pressure ceases to be one of the master-forces in life. Yet do not the people love the emphatic gesture, the soldier who knows the gate he means to take? Do they not applaud him in their journals, and celebrate him in their songs? Is it to be Song of Solomon, that only the Church is to be wanting in fervour, in military precision, in dignity and constancy, in warfare and instruction?
"That they may go into the gates of the nobles" ( Isaiah 13:2). The strongest gates are to be broken down. The great judgments of God do not seek little postern entrances; they are royal judgments, and must enter by royal ways. There are gates in parks and in castles which are only opened when the monarch approaches. God is the Monarch, and when he comes we must open the central gates—gates passed only by the nobles and the crowned ones of the land. "The nobles." Aristocracy, then, is of some antiquity; not by any possibility of such high antiquity as the common people. But the word "lord," as used in ordinary speech, is a word we would not willingly let die, if we could keep it to its first meanings. It comes by abbreviation from an old Saxon word, laford, and laford comes from an old Saxon verb which means to sustain, to succour. When our lords are succourers we will never violate their house, meet where they may. When the greatest are the kindest they can never be dispossessed. The time has come by the agency of Christian thought and sympathy when men must vindicate their claim to every primacy by their Wisdom of Solomon, their goodness, their fitness, their moral quality. To bring back words to their first meanings is like bringing back prodigals to their father"s house, that they may have rings on their fingers, shoes on their feet, and be clothed with the best robe. Herein every one can have a great title. When the emulation is to exceed one another in kindness, charity, love, sympathy, then the world will be occupied by one class—by the very aristocracy of heaven.
Isaiah says ( Isaiah 13:5): "They come from a far country, from the end of heaven." What a small solar system Isaiah had! He had great advantages in his vision of the Eternal; when he describes God we are touched by the majesty of his description; but when he talks about "a far country" and "from the end of heaven" we long for some little boy of our own common schools to teach him a little about geography. This is good, and most helpful to a right interpretation of the Bible; this brings us to its high point, to the things it means at all times and under all circumstances. This shows the fearlessness of truth; it will occupy any instrument, or use any medium we can supply; it attaches itself to the intelligence of the day, and uses that for purposes of enlightenment and progress. Who can tell where is the end of heaven? The destruction which is to fall upon Babylon is to come as a destruction from the Almighty. Here is a curious play upon words, which, as the old commentators would say, cannot be Englished. The word "Almighty" here means "the destroyer." In the original language it is almost a pun, a play upon syllables and tones, "it shall come as a destruction from the destroyer." How seldom is the word "Almighty" used in connection with the tender aspects of the divine nature; power would always seem to have been associated with thoughts of judgment, penalty, sovereignty of a stern and exacting kind. In this sense the word is found eight times in the Pentateuch, and twenty-three times in the Book of Job alone. All we can do with a prophecy of this kind is to find out its central principle, which belongs to all ages and to all countries. The prophecy brings God before us as the God of nations. That is a thought which we seldom realise. We fix our unit in the individual. So does God, but he also uses the unit as descriptive of a totality. Babylon is a unit; yea, Assyria, of which Babylon was part—the haughty capital—is a unit; so Media, Egypt, Damascus, Syria. Always understand what the unit is that God is speaking about—sometimes an individual, sometimes a country, sometimes a world, sometimes the universe. A unit is more than one. It is one literally, but there may be a unit of simplicity and a unit of complexity. God handles the nations as single entities: Babylon counts one, Nineveh counts one, every nation is a one; they are millions in the detail, but God lifts up the nation in its unity, examines it, judges it, sentences it, in its unity. Are we not accustomed to the same method of dealing with great questions? Do we not invest a nation with a character? How would the nation of the Jews have been described in olden times? How would the health of England or America or any other country be now stated? As if the country were but one individual. Who hestitates to speak about the function of a whole people, assigning one function to the Roman character, and a totally distinct function to the Greek instinct and culture? We ourselves, therefore, speak as God speaks of nations in their unity. A very mysterious thought this, and full of urgent instruction and suggestiveness. A metropolis may be pronounced healthy, as we have already seen, when there are hundreds of dying men in it. So there are two standards of judgment, or two views and aspects, under which questions may be considered. Say, for example, London is the healthiest city in the empire. That might be met by the assurance that indisputable statistics prove that in London at the very time of the declaration of its healthfulness there are five thousand men whose lives are despaired of. Yet the statement regarding the sanitary condition of the metropolis may be perfectly right. So we speak of England, or some other country, being honest, inspired by a spirit of equity, or honour, or courage. When a country with such a character issues a loan, all the eagles of the earth come down upon it at once. Why? Because of the character which lies behind. The word is the bond. If a country with a great character has made a proposal, the proposal will be carried out, come what may. Whoever, therefore, helps the improvement of individual character, helps the elevation of all the best national characteristics. To work for a child is to work for the nation; to work in the Sunday-school is to amend the national reputation. Thus we operate together, and co-operate with God, and the great purpose is to turn the burden into a blessing.
God is also represented as the destroyer of nations—"Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man"s heart shall melt" ( Isaiah 13:7). How terrible is this! But this is not the worst. There is a purposed cruelty which the Almighty infuses into his judgments when he has to deal with a people like the cities of Babylon; he says: "Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it" ( Isaiah 13:9). The word "cruelty" is not withheld. It may startle us and shock us until we come to the explanatory word, which is also to be found in the document. We must not stop at the adjective, we must go in quest of the substantive which has brought it into relation, and which it either qualifies or is explained by. Our inquiry must be: On whom will God visit a cruel judgment? And if the answer Isaiah, as it will be found to be in the succeeding chapter, we shall find that the words are well balanced, and that the way of the Lord is equal, and that the word "cruelty," which seems to be so undivine, is really the only word that could have been used with propriety and precision under circumstances so unparalleled and so exciting.
The destructions of the Lord will be executed on an infinite scale—"for the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine"; and God "will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir." How often is this text misunderstood! How many times has it been explained as meaning the value which God sets upon a Prayer of Manasseh, or the value which man will one day set upon Prayer of Manasseh, because of the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God. That thought itself is right, but it has no relation whatever to this particular text. Let us read the text, then, in the light of the history. So tremendous and complete shall be the devastation that shall fall upon Babylon that it will be hardly possible anywhere to find a Prayer of Manasseh, and his rarity shall indicate his preciousness. Because the men are so few the greater will be the surprise that they are in existence at all; for when God caused his scythe to swing through the harvests of Babylon it was not expected that a single ear would be left in the devastated field. Thus the utterance is a menace, a judgment; it is not part of a lecture upon the dignity of human nature, it is an illustration of the vastness of the sweep of the judgments of God. How complete is that devastation!
"And Babylon, the glory of the kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees" excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there. But wild beasts of the desert shall be there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged" ( Isaiah 13:19-22).
You remember Milton"s description of what happened at the time of the flood: "And in their palaces, where luxury late reigned, sea-monsters whelped and stabled." "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Oh, Babylon—Pride—where art thou when touched from above? The withering fire passes through all pomp until it burns the hidden root. All this we may say is historical and local. On the other hand, all this is moral and suggestive. This process may take place in the Babylon of the mind. The greatest mind is only safe whilst it worships. The most magnificent intellectual temple is only secure from the judgment and whirlwind of heaven in proportion as its altar is defended from the approach of every unworthy suppliant. If we hand over God"s altar, whether mental or ecclesiastical, to wrong custodians, or devote either to forbidden purposes, then make way for God"s judgments: wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and the houses that were full of beauty and colour and charm shall be full of doleful creatures; and the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces. This may happen to any one of us. Beware of arrogancy, pride, worldliness, self-sufficiency; beware of the betrayal of trusts: nature will Revelation -enter if we be unfaithful. We speak of our wisdom in putting cautionary covenants into all our legal documents, and especially a man assures himself that he is doubly safe when he has secured the right of Revelation -entry under certain breaches of agreement; he says to himself with complacency, That is justifiable; I have arranged that in the event of certain things failing I shall Revelation -enter. Nature always puts that clause into her covenants. She Revelation -enters in a moment. If the gardener is too late by one day with his spade or seed or other attention, nature begins to Revelation -enter; and if he tarry for a week he will find that nature has made great advances into the property. It is so with education, with the keeping up of intelligence, with the maintenance of healthy discipline; relax a month, and nature Revelation -enters, and nature plays the spoiler. Nature is not a thrifty, careful husbandman. Nature has a function of desolation; she will grow weeds in your richest flower-beds if you neglect them for a day. God Revelation -enters by the spirit of judgment and by the visitations of anger. Herein his providence is but in harmony with the kingdom which he has instituted within the sphere which we call husbandry, and even within the sphere which we denominate by education or discipline. It is one government. Neglect your music for a month, and you will find at the end that nature has Revelation -entered, and you are not wanted; you have not brought with you the wedding-garment of preparation up to date. There must be no intermission; the last line must be filled in. Nature will not have things done in the bulk, in the gross: nature will not allow us simply to write the name; she will weave her webwork all round the garment if we have neglected the borders, and paid attention to only the middle parts.
And how does God justify all this treatment of Babylon? We find the answer in the fourteenth chapter; he says the Babylonians were oppressors, and Babylon was an oppressor, and Babylon was the staff of the wicked. That is the explanation, and God"s explanation is always moral. God never judges men because they have been good, nor smites them because of overmuch prayer; wherever we find the record of judgment we find a record of disobedience, rebellion, haughtiness. How terrible is the fate of the wicked! He shall be mocked in his later time; they who were already on the ground shall receive him on the dust, and say:—
"All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High" ( Isaiah 14:10-14).
Now we see the quantity with which God had to deal, and also the justice of his judgment and the wisdom of the very cruelty which plagued an arrogancy which nothing else could touch. You do not appease a tiger by sprinkling scented water upon his open mouth. You must deal with cases as you find them, taking a complete measure of them, and understanding all the forces in them and exercised by them; and so judged it will be found that God, whilst a consuming fire, is also a God of love. The eye that looked upon the Egyptians struck off the iron wheels of their chariots: that same eye, looked at from the position occupied by Israel, made morning and warmth and comfort and security infinite. God is to us what we are to God: to the froward he will show himself froward; to the good he will show himself good. This is the abiding and the unchangeable law. If we were wise with the superior—yea, the supreme wisdom—we should consider that the first thing to be done is to set ourselves in a right relation to God; then all the other relations will fall into their proper place. A quaint old critic has said that if the treble string of the viol be right, he knows that the rest will be right: the bass seldom gets wrong; he looks for the treble string. Out of that we may gather some lessons of a spiritual kind. Look for the religious line in a man"s character—for his veneration, his reverence, his sense of moral dignity and moral responsibility; and if his heart be right toward God he may have his little eccentricities and vanities, but all these will sink into nothingness before the power that can pray, and before the passion that can love.
Almighty God, thou hast promised that death shall be swallowed up in victory. Thou canst not bear death. There is no death in God. The wages of sin is death: but thanks be unto God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thy Son hath abolished death, obliterated it, wiped it out, turned it into nothingness. The broad river is narrow now; men need not pass through it, they can step over it. How near is heaven! how close at hand the invisible! how all but within hand-reach all that we call heaven! We bless thee that in this little life we have hope of immortality. Corruption is not a constant companion. We look for the Lord Jesus, who shall change our common body and make it like unto his own glorious body; then when our citizenship in heaven is completed we shall walk with the saints in light, and do all thy will without reluctance and without weariness. These great anticipations make us strong even now, so that the valley is as a mountain, and the rough place as a road smoothed by God. Such are the miracles thou dost work in our consciousness and our experience, that we have no apprehension of time and space and sense and imprisonment and limitation, but are oftentimes with thy very self in the innermost, uppermost places, where the light never fades. We bless thee for all men who have gone down into the depths valiantly, who have sung in the deep places the song of the redeemed, and who have sent us messages in whispers that the rod and the staff of God can comfort the lone traveller in the darkest valley. This is enough. We are often affrighted, we carry our anticipated death like a burden and die many deaths even whilst we live; but for all sweet messages, all comforting assurances, all inspiring words, all exceeding great and precious promises, we thank God, for they are God"s word only. Grant us strength that we may do thy will; when we have accomplished thy purpose in our life upon the earth make the last time brief, and let us see our Lord, if it please thee, even with somewhat of suddenness. We pray always at the Cross. It is the altar on which no prayer dies, but every prayer is multiplied a thousandfold because of the pleading blood, the infinite, the eloquent Sacrifice. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 13". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany